The Scottish Storytelling Forum (SSF) is a membership organisation, dedicated to keeping the art of live oral storytelling alive and growing in Scotland – a diverse network of storytellers and individuals supporting Scotland’s vibrant storytelling community. It’s Facilitated by Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS) and based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.
The SSF blog series hopes to introduce you to the many different strands within the storytelling scene in Scotland and beyond.
This month, Ailsa Dixon, a young storyteller and student from Aberdeenshire, tells us all about her wonderful mentoring experience with storyteller Lari Don, as part of the Scottish Book Trust’s ‘What’s Your Story?’ scheme, a development programme for 14-17-year olds from across Scotland interested in telling stories.
‘Many people believe storytelling is the preserve of grandparents, or that it faded out of our culture at the point when an average adult began to spend more time on electronic devises than asleep. But when another young person responds to my love of stories with a story of their own, I know that nothing could be further from the truth.
‘I’m a 16-year girl from Aberdeenshire, and I do normal, teenage things – revise for exams, listen to music, watch YouTube, have sleepovers with friends, walk the dog – but I love storytelling. Completely and absolutely. And having young people who are obsessed by finding, telling and reworking stories is essential. As a young person, I understand the value of being listened to when so often you’re dismissed as irrelevant, hormonal or immature. The power of storytelling, particularly as a teen, is the power of being listened to, the joy of sharing something integral to you with another human being. This power is transformative – it makes you feel worthwhile and reaffirms the fact that teens do have something important to say. And storytelling is so often the best way to say it.
‘Unfortunately, for young people, especially those who live outside the central belt, storytelling can be a hard thing to get into. The art of storytelling relies on learning from those more experienced, perfecting your technique through others criticism and, above all, constant practice. This is easier said than done, especially for young people who rely on public transport, juggling exams and social lives, as well as usually lacking the confidence to believe that they might have a place in the centuries old tradition of simple, human imagination and creativity.
‘Originally, I got into storytelling through music. I love trad music, and since late primary I have sung at local folk clubs and played cello with ceilidh bands. (The current project is learning Clarsach, which is progressing slowly!) Karine Polwart has always been one of my contemporary trad heroes, and while obsessively listening to ‘A Pocket of Wind Resistance’, the album of her sensational stage show ‘Wind Resistance’, I began to marvel at the way she weaved words through her music, and how the stories she told seemed old and relevant at the same time. Gradually, I began to realise that the stories she told were part of a whole different world.
‘Around the same time that I was obsessively listening to this album, as well as trying to find out about more stories, I applied to a fantastic scheme run by the Scottish Book Trust called ‘What’s Your Story?’ This is an intensive development programme that selects seven 14-17-year olds from across Scotland interested in any form of telling stories – from short stories and novels, to poetry, blogs, podcasts and illustration – for intensive mentoring by a professional in their medium, as well helping plan events like Storycon and culminating in a showcase. Somehow, I managed to get selected and was paired with the ever wonderful Lari Don (storyteller, author of the ‘Spellchasers’ series, ‘Fabled Beast’ Chronicles and a variety of trad story collections).
‘Mentorship is a unique thing. It’s somewhere between guidance and teaching, and Lari was amazing. For a whole year, she allowed me to ask stupid questions, lent me books, told me stories, read my manuscripts and suggested alterations, read and answered rambling, exclamation mark filled emails, gently coaching me through the first stumbling blocks of storytelling.
‘I spent two days in Inverness at Moniack Mhor where I got my first taste of how effective well honed, polished storytelling could be. Its wild, fluid, iridescent, and feels like breathing. Good storytelling is planned and practiced, with an almost imperceptible rhythm, but feels both to the teller and the listener like something brand new being born out of thin air. Its power can overtake you, which I found when you’ve pretended to kill a dragon in the middle of the Starbucks queue and quite a lot of people are looking very confused – but they are intrigued, and this is the key to human interaction. I learnt to find stories from books, (Otta Swire, Ian Stephen, Tom Muir and Patricia Monaghan, you have my thanks), and from other storytellers, I learnt how to plan and imagine a story or whole other world from a snippet in a book and, perhaps most importantly, that it’s OK to change a story.
‘Perhaps this is what young people are best at – changing things up. Maybe it’s why we need more young tellers. As a young woman, some stories I encountered just felt wrong, like ‘The Selkie Bride’. For those of you who don’t know the myth, it’s about a man who tricks a female selkie into becoming his partner through lies and deception. Parts of the story personally felt uncomfortable but some aspects, like the selkies playing in the moonlight, I really loved. Thousands of people know it, it’s in countless anthologies and collections, but it’s a tale old enough to look after itself and I realised my updated version – where the selkie’s sister rescues her and hits the fisherman over the head with his own violin – is not going to bring the ancient traditions crumbling down around my head.
‘Despite this, when performing at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival (SISF) in October 2018, I still felt nervous about sharing a remastered version of ‘The Five Sisters of Kintail’ (who want to stay young forever to have fun, be free and not have to marry) in case it was against a previously undiscovered storytelling bylaw. However, even though I was the youngest performer there and the only school age person to attend the storytelling in education workshop, everyone was incredibly lovely. If I didn’t already know that storytelling was my passion, SISF told me. It felt like an extended family – everyone knew everyone else, happily showed you about and introduced you to new people, shared stories and offered advice. I essentially lived in the Scottish Storytelling Centre Café for a week – with my wonderful mum, now also a convert to the storytelling cause – soaking it all in, performing, learning, reading and generally trying to make a permanent imprint of it all on my brain.
‘What’s Your Story?, Lari Don and my amazing experience at the SISF taught me so much about storytelling, but I still have lots to learn. At some point in the future I’d love to take part in the Storytelling Apprenticeship, and work towards getting on the Directory of Storytellers, and I hope to study Scottish Ethnology at university. Currently, it’s hard to get opportunities to tell stories as a young person outside your school environment, and within school it can also be hard – I’d be very grateful to anyone who could persuade my teachers that storytelling is a worthwhile thing to be doing with your life. Very grateful indeed! Exams also seem to eat time (I should probably be studying instead of writing this, but maths should always be balanced out by stories. That should probably be the law).
‘Currently I’m working on a project that is essentially my response to Brexit. With a Dutch mum and an Orcadian dad, sometimes I feel like I’m being split in half. This feeling of dissonance between my two passports has grown in the last few years, and I realised that while I tell numerous Scottish trad tales, my knowledge of Dutch folklore was obscure to say the least. When I was investigating Dutch stories, I began to wonder how many of my Polish, French, German and other myriad nationalities of friends and acquaintances knew any stories from their own countries.
‘I am asking my friends, teachers and acquaintances for their childhood stories as well as their own personal stories, and to share them out – a German story to my Polish friend, a Dutch story to a French teacher. It’s fascinating as through this process I’m hearing more and more of my teenage friends, who never understand why I spent my evenings researching, practicing and telling stories, share stories of their own. I’ve told my English class a tale from Ecuador, heard Syrian folktales and stories of flying into Aberdeen for the first time on bonfire night with fireworks in the sky. Also, a friend once made my cry by telling me five wonderful polish folktales as a birthday present.
‘I’m not entirely sure where this project is going. All I know is that more and more young people are beginning to find their stories and share them. More and more young people are beginning to connect through story to people from different continents and cultures. And right at this moment, the more connected we are, the better. Scotland is the Scotland it is today – music, story, infrastructure, food, dance, culture and beyond – through people from different places sharing their knowledge and imagination. And I want to be able to tell that story.’
Ailsa Dixon is from Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire and enjoys storytelling and writing around her studies. She was on the long list of the annual Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2017 and was selected for Scottish Book Trust’s coveted What’s your Story? mentorship in 2018.